Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait miniature of Theophila Palmer (1757-1848), after Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) 

Samuel Shelley (1750-1808)

Portrait miniature of Theophila Palmer (1757-1848), after Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), Samuel Shelley
Watercolour on ivory
18th Century
Oval, 1 5/8 (4.1 cm) high
Private Collection, UK
Gold frame decorated with pale blue enamelled scrolls to the border.

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This recently discovered work is a reduced-scale copy by Samuel Shelley of Reynoldss’ portrait of his niece Theophila Palmer, painted between 1776-1781 [Private Collection].

Theophila was the second daughter of Sir Joshua’s sister Mary Reynolds (1716-94), who married John Palmer (1708-70) of Great Torrington, Devon, in 1740. Clearly Theophila felt more at home in London however, and from the age of thirteen lodged with her uncle, of whom she was ‘enthusiastically and affectionately fond’. The feeling was clearly mutual, and when Reynolds died in 1792 he left his niece a staggering £10,000 fortune in his will. Earlier in 1781 Theophila married Robert Lovell Gwatkin (1757-1843) of Killiow, near Truro in Cornwall, and they had three sons and seven daughters.

The original from which this work derives was started by Reynolds in 1776 and presented to Theophila on her marriage in 1781, and it is possible therefore, that Shelley was commissioned around the same time to produce smaller, more portable versions for dispersal amongst close friends and family.

It was quite common for artists, especially miniaturists, to copy the works of established painters on a reduced scale - Ozias Humphry, for example, also produced numerous portraits ‘in little’ after Reynolds as a method of expanding his client base.

Samuel Shelley was a highly successful artist who worked in a number of mediums, although is perhaps best known for his instantly recognisable portrait miniatures of society’s leading lights. Shelley was a native of London and followed a relatively conventional route into his chosen career, and, after winning the much coveted premium prize awarded annually by the Society of Arts at the age of fourteen, entered the Royal Academy Schools on 21st March 1774. After studying at the R.A. schools (and exhibiting 1774-1804), he became an important voice in the history of watercolour painting in the eighteenth century. A founder member of the first watercolour society in 1805, he believed that watercolours should be given their own forum and exhibition space in order to be properly appreciated. Before the formation of such a society, watercolours could only be shown next to oils at the conventional exhibition spaces of the Society of Artists or Royal Academy. This new separation from brightly coloured, large oil paintings allowed watercolours to be viewed among paintings in the same media and heralded a new admiration of such work. Shelley’s desire to compete with oil paintings also led him to produce small watercolour subject pictures to exhibit alongside the portrait miniatures he painted all his life.
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